I have met several well known meditation masters: Venerable Mahāsī Sayādaw was my preceptor, I stayed with Taung Pulu Sayādaw for a week or two, I met Ajahn Chah and Sayādaw U Pandita a few times, among other well regarded teachers.
It is not unusual to hear claims by disciples that such and such a teacher is definitely an Arahant, but how do they know this? Do they themselves have the power of reading minds? At best, it is an intelligent guess based on a long and intimate association with a teacher, but even then it would be hard to know for sure.
A certain monk was living in dependence on an Arahant. Living in dependence meant that he shared the same room as his teacher, did all the duties for him, and carried his almsbowl for him while walking behind for alms. One day, while walking for alms, the pupil asked, “Venerable sir, how can one know whether another person is an Arahant?”
The Arahant replied, “It is not easy, friend, to know if another person is an Arahant. Even if one lived in dependence on an Arahant, did all the duties for him, and carried his almsbowl while walking behind him for alms, one might not know that his teacher was an Arahant.”
Even when given such a broad hint as this, the pupil did not realise that his teacher was an Arahant. The Arahants have stainless minds free from all pride and conceit. They do not boast of their attainments, unless there is no other way to help people.
Then, supposing that one was convinced that one's teacher was an Arahant, there are two possibilities: it is true, or it is false. In the latter case there are two possibilities: the teacher is deluded, or a shameless liar. Either way, if one's confidence is misplaced it might well lead to one's own harm.
In the former case, supposing that one's confidence is well placed and one's teacher really is an Arahant, does it help to remove one's own defilements? Or does it lead to an increase in defilements such as pride, thinking “My teacher is an Arahant?”
The bottom line is that there is no way for us to know whether someone else is an Arahant, and it doesn't really matter. As long as we have confidence that the Buddha was an Arahant, and strive to practice his teaching, we can remove at least some of our defilements.
• • • • (Upasampadā: 24th June, 1979)